Via Chicago14 August 2008
February 2004

I usually consider the discussions that a movie spawns to say something about the movie. Like the recent discussion of Monster, which centers around acting, not serial killers, such discussions are often very different from the movie's purported subject matter.

But — I don't know — this seems like a less useful metric for talking about a movie like The Passion of the Christ because the discourse is so dominated by the personality that made the movie, people who haven't seen the movie, people with agendas, and massive publicity.

Bombast, bluster, and sheer volume of opinions make for difficult conversations. Maybe all of this noise says something about the movie, after all.

On a vaguely related topic, readers can now add comments to the Errata movie capsules. I'm using the software that runs this weblog for these comments, and because the weblog is using a different system from the rest of the site, the capsule comments aren't integrated as nicely on the page as I'd like them to be, but this will improve over time.

Feel free to comment or not. But thanks at least for reading.

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2004, U.S.
director: Mel Gibson

The impulse to make a movie like The Passion of the Christ is very similar, I think, to the impulses that result in remakes of classic movies, adaptations of beloved fantasy novels, and live-action versions of favorite cartoons. It's the result of filmmakers asking themselves, "Do you know what we could do with this story given current technology, given what's possible with modern makeup and special effects?" That's not to say the filmmakers aren't personally interested in the material, but why retell a story that everyone knows unless there's a new way to tell it?

Another reason would be to attempt to say something new, which is what Martin Scorsese has done repeatedly with his movies. Scorsese is no stranger to depicting violence himself. His most acclaimed movies are explosive, but his quieter, more thoughtful movies often examine violence and, more to the point, examine aspects of the Christian faith.

The most obvious comparison is The Last Temptation of Christ which wonders what kind of temptations someone who was both man and God might endure. Scorsese's movie followed a Christ who fought human desires throughout his life, which offended many Christians who saw it (and even more who didn't bother), but it's on the cross, in the final hour, that the temptations move from simply human to deviously unique to the son of God. Where Gibson hones in on Christ's physical pain, which frankly is available to many people who walk the earth, The Last Temptation wonders if the pain would have been even more difficult to bear for someone who could end it all, at any point. The movie indulges a lengthy fantasy, planted by Satan in the form of a child, in which Jesus is convinced that he's done plenty of good in the world and can now live out a full human life of simple pleasures and no suffering. We humans can't claim to understand the thoughts of God, but this movie more than any other I can think of makes that clear by asking us to wonder about pressures we can hardly fathom. Of course in the end Jesus resists this temptation, the movie snaps back to the cross where he accomplishes his duty, by choice, and the film literally seems to fly out of the projector, leaving the audience with a blinding white light. It's surely one of the great unsung endings in the movies.

Then there's Bringing Out the Dead, written by the same screenwriter as Last Temptation, Paul Schrader. The story revolves around a late-night ambulance driver, but Scorsese and Schrader treat him like the young minister in Robert Bresson's classic Diary of a Country Priest, a man with a crisis of faith who wonders if he's doing any good at all. It's an unconventional movie that uses a modern analogy to present the struggles of those who are called to do the work of God. And look at Kundun, Scorsese's startlingly beautiful examination of someone else's religion and how its followers respond to violence and oppression. These movies aren't the gospel and don't claim to be, and some of them are rough around the edges where Gibson's movie is expertly polished, but they're the work of someone thinking hard about his faith, and watching them makes me think of things I hadn't considered before, which isn't easy to do with stories that are so familiar.

To the question of what kind of crucifixion could be made with current technology, the answer is: an impressive one. The Passion is intensely graphic. Despite reports to the contrary, the movie isn't realistic in a cinematic sense, with its blue foggy Garden of Gethsemane, its beautifully glowing temples, and its physical manifestations of evil. Thwacks to the skull don't really sound like booming, echoing thuds, but all the stylized movie magic does convey a sense of the real, physical pain that Christ endured, to a fault. It's an accomplished spectacle but one that leaves me with very little to think about afterward. Christians may complain that no one can add to the gospels, but no one is asking Mel Gibson, or any other movie star or artist, to do that but instead to think about his faith and respond to it. No one should mistake a movie for the word of God.

Although it's long, The Passion is well paced and moves quickly, mostly because it retells only the last days before the crucifixion, with occasional flashbacks to Jesus' life. As death looms, the flashbacks become more brief and are less gracefully integrated with the flow. Most of them will be meaningless to someone unfamiliar with the stories — here's Jesus writing in the sand while a woman avoids a stoning — so presumably this movie is for believers. And what is it telling them? Mostly that a crucifixion such as this is unbearably painful, something that most people already know.

Even though Gibson goes over the top here and there, with repeated slow-motion falls to the ground, crows pecking out eyeballs, and horror-movie shocks of creepy demon children, in balance I believe he has reverence for his material, albeit with a narrow field of view. Showing Mary running, in slow-motion, to help her little boy after he has fallen may expose the filmmaker's puppet strings wrapped around the hearts of the viewers — an astute precautionary tactic to use with an audience that may have been numbed by the bludgeoning — but I believe his intention is truly to identify with a mother worrying about her son and to transfer that understanding to the theater, even if it borders on crassness. Likewise, using the original languages for the dialog walks a line between realism and gimmickry. (A scene in which Jesus the carpenter apparently invents the dining table, à la Forrest Gump, is spoken in Aramaic instead of its original language, which I presume is English.) Gibson seems sincere, and the gore doesn't come across as exploitation but just strong medicine. The movie doesn't address whether this is the right medicine for the ailment.

I suppose that I'm looking for a revelatory experience, a moment of insight, every time I go to the movies. Finding one is rare. Recently maybe they've been buried in portions of Lost in Translation or in the Belgian movie The Son which sets up possibilities for revenge and forgiveness, opposite poles, and then hangs in the complicated gray area in the middle. Sometimes the revelations appear in the least likely places, sometimes even in movies about familiar events.

Gibson's movie ends with the resurrection. Some critics have said that this part of the movie is too brief after hours of persecution, but the strength of scenes should not be measured in minutes. The resurrection scene is short, but it's a majestic ending after a long black pause, an ending that feels like a beginning. The problem isn't that it's too brief but that I've already seen this image of the holes in Jesus' hands. It was in my head well before digital effects provided the means to put it on the screen, and The Passion of the Christ brings nothing to it, nothing to the crucifixion or the life of Christ, that I hadn't already thought about, except maybe that a cat-o'-nine-tails sticks in the flesh and rips it to shreds, an unfortunately meager observation from a movie that's obviously made with great conviction.

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Due to an editing error in a recent article on Chad, we incorrectly stated the country's per-capita income. It's $220, not one tablespoon of oats, 3 Björk posters, a feather from a boa worn once by an American film actress, a recalled, poorly-masked DVD box set of Ingmar Bergman's greatest movies, a copy of the shooting script for Inglorious Bastards (incomplete) and a gum ball dispenser filled with coupons for mini-golf. The article also incorrectly and irrelevantly stated that Jerry Lewis directed Taxi Driver. He did not; he only had a small part as a campaign volunteer.
Our new film column in Seventeen, which we considered a much-needed outlet for our brand of analysis, has been cancelled after only one essay, a discussion of the shifting frame as it relates to the themes of Carl Dreyer's Ordet and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flowers of Shanghai. Reader response was mixed, ranging from Jennifer of Boise who wrote, "What the shizzle? P.S. Orlando Bloom is hot!" to Brittany of Joplin who wrote, "Sure Dreyer's plot hinges on a deus ex machina, that's the point, but his camera is not the eye of God, you crack smoker." Maybe she's right. Maybe they're both right.
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Bernardo Bertolucci's new movie The Dreamers seems to have personal significance for many film critics. It takes place in Paris in the Spring of 1968 when student protests over the war in Vietnam and the firing of Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française, were blocking streets.

Both Ebert and Rosenbaum were there around that time, and Rosenbaum not only knows the novel on which the movie is based but also knows the novelist who wrote it (and wrote the screenplay).

But even critics who weren't there wax nostalgic. It was a golden era, it seems, not of movies themselves necessarily but of their urgency, and it's hard for people who love movies not to marvel at that climate. Because of that, many reviews are unusually reflective of the period, not just the movie. See A. O. Scott for an example. I also liked David Edelstein's comments, especially his observation that the young American's political speeches sound like "the 60ish filmmakers talking with 20/20 hindsight, not the anti-Vietnam-War American trying to sort it all out in the middle of this tumultuous moment."

More negative than most of the above is J. Hoberman, whose reaction is closer to mine, I think. Maybe I'd feel differently if I'd been there.

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2003, U.K., France, Italy
director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Théo and Isabelle are intense French siblings living in Paris in 1968. They're fanatics for the cinema, and when their parents go away for the summer they invite Matthew, a fellow cinephile, an American studying in Paris, to live with them in their parents' labyrinthine flat. They've just met him, but he takes them up on their offer, and for most of the movie the three of them stay cooped up in this dark space talking about movies, music, and politics, but mostly movies and mostly naked.

The Dreamers opens with vibrant invocations of the figures of the French New Wave, such as Henri Langlois, the legendary curator of the Cinémathèque Française, and the filmmakers and film lovers that his archive inspired. The movie frequently dips into those archives to re-stage moments from the canon, merging its action with clips from classic movies and nodding to pillars like Band à Part explicitly and Jules and Jim implicitly with its trio of pals.

Unfortunately, the movie never uses these allusions as anything other than shallow points of reference — except for maybe a brief discussion of Keaton and Chaplin, which at least provides a critical consensus of the two filmmakers as they're compared today if not then — and the same is true of the political discord erupting outside the apartment. "There's something going on out there, and it seems like it might be important," says Matthew to Théo, lecturing him for not getting involved. The irony is that he himself isn't involved. He and his new friend argue about their particular ways of opposing the Vietnam war (a practical pacifist vs. a militant) while they're crammed into a bathtub, shortly joined by Isabelle who doesn't weigh in on the subject but merely gets sudsy. They debate the guitar gods, Hendrix vs. Clapton, but when Bertolucci cranks up the soundtrack to evoke the period, it's not Hendrix performing "Hey Joe" but Matthew himself, or someone who sounds like him. And the cinema debates usually take the form of pop quizzes that the three friends-slash-siblings give each other; incorrect answers are implausibly punished by some form of sexual humiliation, a plot device that's useful for getting people out of their clothes.

I suppose this is Bertolucci's point, that navel-gazing is both at odds with activism and somehow inseparable from it — or seems so to someone looking back at these turbulent days in 1968 — a paradox that's depicted here by characters who gaze at their bath mates' navels instead of their own. But the ideas are so vaguely explored and so subservient to well-lit flesh that the political unrest outside the apartment, which appears in a flash and disappears as quickly, feels like window dressing for a movie more interested in bleeding the idea of youth from scattered memories — not the reality of youth, but the fantastic dreams of adults who get to reflect wistfully on the protests in the streets, the apartments in Paris, the university classes (rarely attended, always offscreen), the absent parents, and the bodies intertwined without having to consider for a moment the ramifications or failed achievements of any of it. In the same way that Bertolucci culls clips from old movies, he touches on the supposed high points of a moment in history and suggests that dwelling on these superficialities is naive, even though that's all he seems interested in doing himself.

As someone who wasn't in Paris in 1968 — who wasn't anywhere, in fact — I get a real kick out of the pictures of streets crammed with people who are furious about cinema and furious about the war, inseparable passions, even though most of the pictures are recreations. I've been on those Cinémathèque steps. Alas, there was no lovely French girl chained to the gate at the bottom, nor were rubber bullets fired at me, and the only tear gas I ever smelled was an accident, not meant for me. Wrong place, wrong time. And though I can enjoy some of that energy vicariously through Bertolucci's movie, it's finally a hollow experience, an unreachable destination, with an importance not articulated, barely even explored, by a movie that's decadently gorgeous.

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While most critics are falling in line to praise Charlize Theron's performance in Monster (Ebert: "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema"), Armond White takes them to task for praising "a movie of unrivaled repugnance."

White is overly harsh, using Theron's TV appearances as "proof" that she "has no moral awareness," but I sympathize with his frustration. In my own capsule I guessed that the performance would spawn more discussions about acting than about killing, and since I wrote that I've been paying close attention to the first thing someone says about the movie when the topic arises. Invariably people comment on the acting. (In fact, the transformed actress is what piqued my interest in the movie in the first place.)

Would we read the movie differently if Wuornos were being played by a less beautiful actress who didn't have to stretch so far to achieve the right image? Does Theron's star power interfere with the movie, even though it's not on display in the movie itself?

For a lot of critics, I think so, which calls into question A.O. Scott's declaration that we're in a golden age of movie acting. Or maybe it just calls into question the age of criticism, which clearly isn't golden if the most praised movies feature acting that gets in the way of what the movies are saying, which in the case of Monster isn't a whole lot.

I like that Scott singled out Billy Crudup in Big Fish. ("You can watch Mr. Crudup in Big Fish or the nonstar starlets in Mona Lisa Smile and marvel at their partial escape from the dreary screenwriting clichés in which they are trapped, even as you wish they could escape altogether.") I do. But I don't wish that their histrionics would blot out the movie's themes entirely.

So I can't say whether or not we're in a golden age of acting (Karen at Cinecultist doesn't think so), and I don't much care who wins the Oscars, but I welcome an analysis of a movie that gives as much weight to what people are doing as to how they're doing it.

So once again, here's White, writing about Monster:

We?ve come so far from the psychological and sociological investigation of killers in Truman Capote?s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer?s The Executioner?s Song that we have retraced the movements of pop?s social consciousness and now are behind Capote and Mailer?s discoveries — which were important because they were also discoveries of our own criminal potential, our community dread, our uncertain fates.
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In my recap of the SF Indie Fest, I neglected an animated short that I enjoyed. Fast Film is an ingenious 14-minute collage of movie clips folded like origami into birds, horses, and trains.

Like a lot of animation, it's much harder to describe than to appreciate first-hand. Maybe a QuickTime clip would help.

[UPDATE: Or watch the whole thing. Via The Guardian via GreenCine Daily.]

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San Francisco is lucky enough to be awash in specialized film festivals. A stretch of them nearly covers February to April, with just a little breathing room after each one.

Wrapping up last weekend was the SF Independent Film Festival, whose initials are not to be confused with the city's largest festival, the SF International Film Festival, which dwarfs all others. For 10 days the SF Indie Fest concentrates on the fringe that's often overlooked by larger festivals, and like a cool little museum it's small enough that you can feasibly see everything it offers. I didn't, but I did catch 15 or so programs.

Here are my favorites:

  • Revengers Tragedy — Somehow I've made it this far without seeing Repo Man, and although I've seen Sid and Nancy, it was so long ago that I don't remember it very well. So I walked into Alex Cox's latest with few preconceived notions. For a while I thought it was nothing I hadn't seen before: a modern, punkified updating of a centuries-old play (Thomas Middleton instead of Shakespeare, but still). However, it won me over. The double-crossers are expertly cast, their double-crossings are swift, and Cox finds humor without using rim shots. Not that he's subtle at all. For example, Eddie Izzard, who we see crammed into the back of a limo with his brothers throughout the movie, discovers the fold-down armrest once his brothers have been bumped off. Or, Christopher Eccleston orchestrates the briefest frame-up I've ever seen: he tells the police, "That one killed them two," and that's that. Leave the sentiment at the door.
  • Nobody Needs to Know — One of the joys of a festival like this is stumbling across something that you really can't imagine seeing anywhere else. Azazel Jacobs' movie is annoying and alienating. It has an odd idea of a narrator, separate from the story, who comments on nearly every scene, as if he's watching along with you. And yet the story beneath this overbearing presence is so cleverly told, and the ideas explored so subtly (perplexing, this subtlety beneath something so self-conscious), that I found myself thinking about it for a long time after I saw it. I believe the movie has a lot to say about what it means to participate in society and how odd it is that so many people value, or seem to value, not participating, adorning themselves with the look and the surface attitude of the drop-out. Also, I think it's good to remember that a movie doesn't need to be a masterpiece to be thought-provoking. I hope Jacobs gets to make more features in the future.
  • Piggie — I had a similar feeling about Alison Bagnall's character-driven debut feature. (She previously cowrote Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66.) This story shot on video revolves around two people: Fanny, a teen girl played by Savannah Haske (also the movie's cowriter), and Nile, a guy evading a bit of trouble by drifting into Fanny's rural town. They meet, which means more to her than it does him. They're fascinating because they both have unclear motives that seem to involve manipulating each other with different ends in sight. Fanny's got her mind on romance and makes up country songs that she sings a capella into a tape recorder. Nile, on the other hand, is too old for Fanny and sees trouble down that road, but he has some cash flow problems, and people are pursuing him. The movie tries to wrap things up with a poignant ending, but for a while it feels alive, even suspenseful because of the volatility of its characters rather than any predetermined story arc.
  • 2LDK — Yukihiko Tsutsumi and Ryuhei Kitamura challenged each other to a cinematic duel: each of them was to shoot a movie in a week about two characters dueling in a single location to the death. For his entry Kitamura made Aragami, a traditional supernatural sword fighting movie. But Tsutsumi made 2LDK, a funny and original falling out between roommates. Two young women have auditioned for the same part in a yakuza movie. Tomorrow they'll find out who gets it, but tonight they have to share an apartment. Let's just say they don't hit it off and things escalate like an extended, live-action episode of Itchy & Scratchy. Except for providing a few tips on using household items for nefarious purposes, 2LDK has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and I quite enjoyed it. The colorful apartment is generously trashed, and the girls' rage is nothing that hasn't gone through a roommate's head at one time or another, although maybe most of these fantasies don't involve so many deadly blows to the skull.

The next festival in San Francisco is the SF International Asian-American Festival, which I'm really looking forward to, not only because they have a lot of great stuff on the schedule (can't see everything at this fest), but also because I believe they'll be showing several movies that Miramax has snatched up for US distribution and subsequently shelved.

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It's a busy day for announcements about storing and retrieving. "Google Achieves Search Milestone with Immediate Access to More Than 6 Billion Items". The press release says

Google's collection of 6 billion items comprises 4.28 billion web pages, 880 million images, 845 million Usenet messages, and a growing collection of book-related information pages.

Not to be confused with book-related program activities, that last category is a service called Google Print, which the release goes on to describes as "a test service that enables Google users to immediately access a range of book related information, such as first chapters, reviews, and bibliographic information. These pages also offer users links to directly purchase titles."

Don't forget the purchasing.

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I think that's a movie.

No, sorry, it's Time not time.

Here. Reuters is reporting that HP today announced this:

Computer and printer maker Hewlett-Packard Co. will create a digital archive containing every issue of Time magazine published, which Time will then make freely available to subscribers on its Web site, the companies said on Tuesday.

HP said the digital archive would total more than 4,000 issues from 1923 to the present and be available in May.

Several years ago I ripped some CDs and started listening to MP3s whenever I was at my desk instead of carrying discs around. Most of my working days have been in Silicon Valley where there's usually a spare hard drive sitting around asking to be filled.

But drives weren't as big then as they are now, so I was selective, and even if I'd had the space, I didn't feel like I had the time to rip my entire collection. I figured I'd eventually get to all of the music I was interested in if I just ripped on demand. Feel like listening to something, look on your computer, it's not there, go to the shelf, dust it off.

But a funny thing happens when you reach a certain threshold. You stop going back to the shelf. In fact — back up — you stop feeling like listening to some albums because you forget about them entirely.

So then last month my wife went on a ripping binge, which is distinct from a rip-roaring binge, but never mind that. She systematically worked her way through our collection and ripped them all, and I was amazed at how many of my favorites I'd been without. Not golden oldies but stuff from 2 or 3 or 5 or 8 years ago, forgotten. And not crap, either, but good stuff.

For the first time I started to wonder about this fear that I've heard from people who don't otherwise seem like Luddites but are nevertheless concerned that as we digitize the world we'll lose track of the things that aren't digitized. The phenomenon is counterintuitive: the more you digitize, the less you miss what you're not seeing.

It used to be that if I couldn't find something at, say, AltaVista, then I'd try HotBot or some other search engine. Nowadays, if I don't find something in Google, I stop there unless I'm unusually motivated. Google has become really good, we all know, and its content has passed the threshold. Not there? Must not be online.

Steven Johnson wrote in Slate a while back that more and more scholarly papers are in Google. They're online as PDFs. Therefore, an increasing number of researchers use Google, increasingly. Increasing, increasing! Which, Johnson says, is leading a fundamental shift in research, from looking at books to looking at papers, because they're easier to get your hands on and, on the other end, easier to distribute. [Johnson's other points amount to nitpicks about Google's algorithms and the relatively crude ways that it indexes knowledge, but I'm fascinated by the implication that what's easily available drastically alters our standard processes for knowledge reaping and sowing.]

So HP will digitize Time. Lots of magazines have archives, and I suppose those archives will go deeper and further over time. Time. Over time. Archives will expand. Most of them. And the journals that are out of print, or defunct, or don't bring in dollars, or are otherwise forgotten... will they be pushed even further under the rug in the age of limitless information?

Limitless only in the sense that we can't currently see its limits. They zig-zag.

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2002, United States
director: Larry Blamire

An imprecise, simplistic, but otherwise inoffensive spoof of 50s and 60s science fiction movies, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra squeezes too many jokes out of redundant dialog and never seems very sure of what it's ridiculing, but it's good-natured and doesn't drastically overstay its welcome. In many theaters, the movie is being presented with "Skeleton Frolic," an animated short by Ub Iwerks. I wish more distributors would package a short with their features to create an outlet for a format that seems underrepresented outside of film festivals and MTV.

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2003, U.S.
director: Azazel Jacobs

Nobody Needs To Know is Azazel Jacobs' delicate portrait of contrasts, between those who are dropping out and those who just look like they are. Tricia Vessey plays Iris, an actress who's fed up. We don't really know why, but the last straw is a movie audition in which actresses dressed in nightgowns are asked to die. They're not given any particulars, just die. We see a dozen approaches, all of them basically the same, but Iris considers the request and then says no, she can't do it, and leaves, capturing the imagination of the vague and frustrated director.

When she says she can't do it, she doesn't mean just the audition. She means acting, or maybe living. She withdraws, holes up in her room, gradually rips it to pieces, and has no interest in returning the calls of her agent or anyone else. Although she does leave her room occasionally to interact with her roommate, or be dragged off to a restaurant, or suffer through a punk show, or wander the streets and bump into acquaintances, her withdrawal is nearly total. She seems devoid of ambition and strangely at peace, free, teetering on an edge that her friends, despite appearances to the contrary, have never approached.

The movie's most interesting observation is how a few surface details can make someone appear to be a rebel and how desirable that appearance can be. Everyone Iris meets wants "something more real" or celebrates counter culture, but they're only posing. Iris's ripped and paint-splattered clothing held together by safety pins is mirrored in a model's designer fashions. The director, unable to locate Iris for the part in the movie, now instructs the auditioning actresses to refuse the audition ("I won't do it," they say, one after the other), trying in vain to reconstruct the arresting image of Iris's true rebellion.

Shot in black and white, the movie is brimming with observant montages of New York and its most fame-seeking inhabitants, but its weakest construct is also the most difficult to overlook: the entire movie is narrated by a meta character who comments on the action ("whoa, this is weird") and claims control of the camera ("look at all these angles," "I have the power"). It's a jarring, intrusive conceit that overshadows the whole film, and I've waited this long to mention it only because I wish it weren't so dominating.

The narration isn't without its own ideas — that our movies reflect our desires, that people are unaware of their ability to move in and out of the frame, just as Iris has moved out of the frame of her life and stepped back to observe the people around her with some emotional distance — but too often the narration robs us of the opportunity to draw our own conclusions. It anticipates too quickly what we'd be better off discovering for ourselves. ("Hey, I've seen this guy before, somewhere.")

Jacobs finds visual patterns in faces as they're being made up, turned into masks, or framed by mirrors. Although the narrator claims to control the frame, clearly Vessey does. Jacobs' camera is understandably fascinated by her, watching her the way Godard doted on Jean Seberg or Anna Karina. She's as commanding here as she was in Ghost Dog and Trouble Every Day, but she's not merely an icon. She's a living, thinking person. Her roommate and the director running the auditions are subtle and surprisingly well-rounded, and Jacobs has a way with images that seems so natural it can be startling. A shot of a coffee cup has never sent such shivers down my spine.

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Tim Burton's Big Fish feels like an attempt to make a fairy tale for grownups. It colorfully, whimsically tells the story of a son who regrets the distance between himself and his dying, yarn-spinning father. I liked some of the images — especially, for some reason, the clown with the pistol in his belly — but something about this particular combination of the shallowness of fairy tales and the dead-seriousness of generational regret isn't very satisfying. Billy Crudup is likable as the realistic character in a sea of larger-than-lifes, but at the end of this road his issues are resolved with the wave of a magic wand, and we're left with little to no insight about fathers and sons.

As a counterpoint, The Barbarian Invasion, also in theaters, takes a similar tale and plays it out with truth and tenderness. There's a fair bit of humor but no fairy tale resolutions. Nevertheless, the characters take some baby steps toward understanding one another, and even if they don't get far, the movie depicts their situations more credibly than Burton's simple drama. The son doesn't know how to respond to his father's impending death except by busying himself with the arrangements — hopping to the task of getting a hospital room, notifying his father's friends, and easing the physical pain of these final days — most of which he accomplishes by making phone calls and waving money, his own brand of magic wand and pixie dust.

But for a more thought-provoking tale of fathers and sons than either of these, stay home and read The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme. Fathers "cannot be climbed over, neither can they be slithered past," he writes. Of course the father in this novel is already dead, but his children are towing him on a cart to his final resting place, and he's putting up the best fight he can muster.

Barthelme is best known for writing absurdist short stories, and even his novels are slim. Like Burton, he took a liking to fairy tales and wrote his own versions of Snow White and the legend of King Arthur (published posthumously as The King).

Barthelme's wit and inventiveness can catch you off guard: he's very funny, so he can't possibly be serious, too. There's a memorable section in the middle of The Dead Father called "A Handbook for Sons" which gives advice for dealing with fathers and provides a few sample "voices" of fathers. The way Barthelme slips into these voices so accurately, like a dollop of realism in the middle of an abstract road trip, has permanently scratched my brain. Many modern writers count Barthelme as an influence, and he obviously is, but I'm not sure that any of them has his ability to paint pictures in so few words.

And filmmakers, too, should wish they could tap into human nature with observations so keen they not only withstand the most outrageous stylistic fireworks but even benefit from them. Barthelme understood that the funny thing about fairy tales is that life isn't so simple, and he achieved much of his humor by putting modern concerns into the heads of dwarves or letting the simple brains of princesses try to tackle real life.

Barthelme's short story "Views of My Father Weeping" acts as a kind of companion to The Dead Father, in my mind. The short story is a strand woven of contrapuntal plots, one about a son investigating how his father came to be run over by an aristocrat's carriage and the other about a father (the same?) who nonsensically jams his thumb into cakes and otherwise behaves like a child. Likewise, the title character of the novel is a combination of seemingly contradictory traits: overbearing, ancient, obsolete, childish, embarrassing. He's a necessary burden, not easily contained.

Barthelme's juxtapositions have purpose. His non-sequiturs aren't played solely for laughs. Letting fairy tale logic resolve conflicts was his idea of a joke, not a substitute for real thought as it is in Big Fish, which ends by trying unsucessfully to convince us that the tragic relationships of its characters are nothing to worry about at all. Snort some pixie dust, bleed forth a rainbow.

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This past Sunday, Harry Shearer started his radio show with this tidbit:

This week Southern California reclaims the crown [as one of the "capitals of irony in advertising"], at least temporarily.

A new radio station has gone on the air, Indie 103.1. "Your independent station," it calls itself, because it plays a different variety of pop music than most of the stations on the air. Independent 103.1 is owned by Clear Channel Communications, the company that owns more than 1200 radio stations, the company that owns more radio stations in the country than anybody.

But you know if you have that kind of power you feel sort of independent, don't you?

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2002, U.K.
director: Alex Cox

Someone smarter than I about Jacobean drama will have to say whether Alex Cox's Revengers Tragedy is faithful to Thomas Middleton's 17th-century play, but as a punk-laden futuristic revenge tale, it's darkly funny throughout. It relies on a devious, often deadpan sense of humor to blend the the worlds of rock-n-roll stars, corporate raiders, and good old-fashioned corrupt rulers, each one carrying his divine right between his clenched teeth, each one wicked to the core, and each one dying a sumptuous death, thereby passing the baton to the next eager heir to the dukedom who snatches the title from still-warm hands. Cox makes judicious use of jump cuts and other visual flair to keep up a steady pace, and while the first half hour is confusing to someone without the proper background, I made it through to the reward: a cast — headed by Christopher Eccleston, Eddie Izzard, and Derek Jacobi — that seems to be perfectly in tune with Cox's vision and its infectious rhythms.

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I'm supposed to be working on my fiction, and I am. But where is it, people ask.

Here's A.L. Kennedy:

... being "born a writer" does not imply that the budding typist won't have to work at it just as hard as they might if they'd been born a policeman, or a fishmonger, or nothing identifiable at all. I might also point out that being born a writer can often feel paralysingly similar to being nothing identifiable at all, given that writing is an unlikely and ephemeral occupation, rarely respected until it has produced considerable fruit. It is almost always inexplicable to others until you have published at least a few books, and even then it can still be tricky. And whatever work it moves you to will not look like work, because the hours you devote to your writerly calling may seem perilously close to sitting down and staring a lot and will produce unmistakable (if occasionally angst-ridden) signs of satisfaction. Your progress will be irregular, baffling to quantify. It will also be deeply personal and, because of this, the idea that anyone can teach you how to become a writer, or how to write, is a myth.

(Via James Tata, last November. I remembered the excerpt and went back to find it.)

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I alluded to this trend in a recent review, but James Quandt has written a 4-page analysis of the grotesquerie of recent French films:

... When Bruno Dumont, once championed as the standard-bearer of a revival of humanism — indeed, of classic neorealism — in French cinema, capitulates to this inimical approach, one begins to suspect a deeper impulse at work: a narcissistic response to the collapse of ideology in a society traditionally defined by political polarity and theoretical certitude, perhaps. The authentic, liberating outrage — political, social, sexual — that fueled such apocalyptic visions as Sal? and Weekend now seems impossible, replaced by an aggressiveness that is really a grandiose form of passivity.

(Via GreenCine Daily.)

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The advertisers for I, Robot and The Stepford Wives have made essentially the same trailer. Compare and contrast: exhibit A and exhibit B.

They both start with the sexy-cool nature of luxury technology, then one of them emphasizes the cool and the other the sexy, not all that different really, sides of a coin.


Neither trailer includes scenes from the movie — which is common for a teaser — favoring instead a high concept, in this case a riff on that most familiar form of communication, the advertisement.

In more typical trailers, the ones that aren't dramatically withholding glimpses of the movie, the scenes that advertisers leave out speak volumes. The trailers for mainstream movies exaggerate how exciting or funny or spooky the movies are, that's for sure, but it's the trailers for the art movies that often go out of their way to obscure the nature of the movies they advertise.

Take the Dogville trailer as an example. The movie has an Our Town feel, like a filmed play. It has a very minimal set and uses a handheld camera almost exclusively. Stylistically these are some of the movie's most compelling features, so I wonder why the trailer hides them completely? The trailer uses superimposition and compositing to form a collage of close-ups. It studiously avoids shots that obviously reveal the chalk lines and facades, and it avoids any shots that are long enough to show a shaky camera with a point of view. It's not a bad trailer, just odd.

Dogville is in English, so it escapes the more typical treatment of foreign films, the hiding of the movie's language, which now seems like the norm. These trailers use an English voice-over, naturally, and avoid showing scenes where people talk. The goal isn't usually to hide the fact that the movie is foreign, because that has a certain cachet, but just to gloss over any language barriers.

The techniques have become more sophisticated in recent years. It was weird in older trailers to see people talk but not hear anything they say, the speech having been covered up by something more familiar, so nowadays the editors scour the movie for every laugh, cry, and burp they can find, looking for any sound made by a human that they can include in the trailer without betraying the language of origin. Something resembling "hello" can stay or a character calling out another's name. Take a look at the trailer for Kitchen Stories (not yet online) as a current example. "Oah?" It's the kind of thing — "oh ho ho" — that drives you crazy once you notice it. "Huh!"

Here's my theory: masking the language isn't about tricking people; it's about trying to keep pace with mainstream movies. Mainstream movie trailers are edited so quickly that the words people say on top of the images are important and presented as economically as possible — there's really no time to read a subtitle. More and more trailers for independent movies are trying to convince us that their movies are just as thrilling as what we might see at the multiplex. And smarter, too! So the trailers look the same, except for this one problem.

In trying to keep up with the Joneses, aren't these distributors neglecting the value of the differentness of the indie movies? These trailers therefore reflect the fundamental problem of the post-Pulp Fiction indie movie industry. Voila!

(This struggle to find the difference between indie movies and studio movies, and the difficulty of shoe-horning one into a slot meant for the other, is a recurring theme in Biskind's new book about Miramax and Sundance, which I'm half through. More on that another day.)

In the multiplexes, the trailers that are supposed to be exciting — the ones that go "blam!" every 10 seconds, which I used to think was a sledgehammer on a stainless steel table but now think is just a computer sound effect — aren't. The ones that are are exciting, or at least noticeable, are the ones that break the pattern, like the robot/wives teasers, although in this case the familiar ad-like structure makes them also seem mundane. An ad parody? Ho hum.

Sometimes an exhilarating montage of an ensemble cast can break the monotony, like the trailers that PT Anderson did for Magnolia, or the similar one for Angels in America. Or sometimes a series of shots presented at a provocatively different pace will do the trick, like Kubrick's trailers for Eyes Wide Shut.

If a trailer held a shot for 30-60 seconds, I'd remember it forever.

You'll notice that I've mentioned three trailers featuring Nicole Kidman — because you're always keeping score, for crying out loud — but who can blame me? Even if she is an icy robot, wouldn't you rather have Marionettes Inc send over a Nicolebot than a James Coco?

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I had no idea before I read this article in today's New York Times that even singers who don't lip-sync might be using a technology that corrects pitch problems in real-time.


The excuse given in the article for why, say, Janet Jackson lip-syncs her vocals at the half-time show and Kid Rock sings to pre-recorded instrumentals — his band cohorts must be flashing back to the days of playing air guitar after school — is that, see, you can't mount a production like that with only a couple minutes of prep time. I feel the need to point out that another avenue would be not to mount a production like that, an avenue obviously overgrown with weeds.

When Brittany Spears was the musical guest on SNL some months back, she was clearly lip-syncing the first song and oh so clearly not lip-syncing the second. The priority throughout the performance wasn't to create live music — don't be ridiculous — but to move that body, shake that body, be in our proximity, yeah yeah yeah. Or for those of us not in the studio, to attach to whatever brain cells control the channel-changer and numb them. It's an ad for her live performances, which are ads for her albums, and so on. Keep that circle turning.

All of this lends credence to the quote attributed to T Bone Burnett, that we live in an age of music made for people who hate music. (I wish I had the source. Was it an LA public radio interview?) This quote often comes to mind when I see a cynically made Hollywood blockbuster.

[UPDATE: In case no one looks in the comments, Doug has found a link to the quote. Burnett says Larry Poons was in his kitchen talking about Ralph Stanley and said, "We live in an age of music for people who don't like music."]

As a producer, Burnett elevates anything he works on, through simplicity and authenticity. As a solo artist, he's made two or three of my all-time favorite albums (let's say Criminal Under My Own Hat and the Trap Door EP, not to be confused with Beyond the Trap Door, which isn't bad, either). And his flawed but brilliant album The Talking Animals should serve as a model of intelligent pop, slickly produced but layered over a bed of rock and featuring jokes about Keats and Byron. As much as I like his production work, he's far too good a songwriter to spend all of his time helping other people make their records and their rootsy soundtracks.

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